Grand jury to review theft cases involving Fayette deputies

jkegley@herald-leader.comJune 6, 2012 

Sgt. Merle McDaniel was wearing his Fayette County sheriff's uniform when he sold two guns that did not belong to him at a pawn shop, a fellow deputy testified Wednesday.

When the sheriff's office caught wind of 14 missing guns, McDaniel tried to buy back the two he had sold, Fayette County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Jay Pittman said in Fayette County District Court.

McDaniel bought one, but the pawn shop had sold the other — a SIG Sauer P220 handgun that sells new for at least $800 or $900.

"He was unable to repurchase that firearm," Pittman said. The handgun has not been recovered.

Those and other details were revealed during preliminary hearings for McDaniel and former co-worker Bill Beers. The two employees of Fayette County Sheriff Kathy Witt were arrested last month for allegedly failing to turn in handguns, rifles and shotguns they confiscated in domestic violence cases. Investigators say the deputies kept the firearms at their homes or, in McDaniel's case, sold them.

McDaniel, 55, and Beers, 47, have pleaded not guilty to felony theft charges. Both were released from jail after posting bond.

Fayette District Judge T. Bruce Bell heard about an hour of testimony from Pittman, who investigated his colleagues after the guns were discovered missing in April. The judge sent both cases to a grand jury for review.

Beers and McDaniel are not co-defendants, and their cases were heard separately Wednesday. Beers' hearing was first.

Beers, who resigned from his position as a sergeant after the investigation began, is charged with two felony counts and one misdemeanor count of theft by failure to make required disposition. He is accused of taking eight guns in three domestic violence cases, but he was not accused of selling any of them.

His attorneys, Brent Caldwell and Bryce Caldwell, questioned Pittman at length about policies and procedures for confiscating guns and booking them into the "property and evidence safe" in the sheriff's office, which is similar to a large bank vault.

Pittman said firearms are confiscated routinely in domestic violence cases. Those guns may be returned to their owners after the domestic violence order has been lifted.

Policy requires all confiscated guns to be booked in before the end of the deputy's shift, Pittman said. In Beers' case, some guns were not booked for more than two months. In McDaniel's case, they were not booked for more than a year.

Attorneys argued that Beers might have violated the department's policy, but he didn't violate the law because the guns were always in his possession and were all turned over to the sheriff's office.

"It absolutely does not rise to the level of a crime," Brent Caldwell said after the hearing. "He simply didn't follow the policy and turn them in on a timely basis, and when asked to do so, he did turn them in. There's no loss here to anybody. There's no theft here."

The judge left the matter for a grand jury to decide, waiving Beers' case before hearing McDaniel's.

McDaniel was acting in his official capacity when he confiscated six guns in two domestic violence cases in 2010. After a gun owner asked to have his guns returned earlier this year, the sheriff's office found no record of receiving it.

The man said McDaniel had confiscated the guns.

When McDaniel was questioned about the missing guns, he said they were "in a safe at his residence," Pittman said.

McDaniel turned in four guns but told investigators that the two others were stuck in a safe that had a faulty lock and that he would bring them in later, Pittman said. Prosecutors say McDaniel then tried to buy back the two guns he sold at Dan's Discount Jewelry & Pawn.

He recovered one of them, a Bushmaster assault rifle, but the SIG Sauer had been sold, Pittman said. The SIG Sauer was the only one of the 14 guns that was not recovered.

Evidence recovered at the pawn shop included receipts and a photocopy of McDaniel's driver's license that documented the transactions, Pittman said.

McDaniel's attorney, Edward Thompson, said he did not want to comment after the hearing.

The arrests of Beers, McDaniel and a third deputy, Maj. Chris Tudor, were announced May 10 at a news conference by Witt, the sheriff. Tudor was charged with official misconduct for allegedly writing a false report to cover up some of the missing guns.

Tudor's case was not heard Wednesday because official misconduct is a misdemeanor. He has pleaded not guilty.

McDaniel and Tudor were suspended without pay pending an investigation.

Grand juries typically review felony cases within 60 days. The jury may choose to indict Beers and McDaniel, or to reduce or dismiss the charges. Tudor's case is scheduled for a pretrial conference in district court June 21.

Josh Kegley: (859) 231-3197. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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